Explore the Cairngorms

Britain's best wildlife destination? With the mightiest mountains, wildest forests and most alluring animals, BBC presenter Gordon Buchanan votes Cairngorms. 

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Having grown up on the Isle of Mull, for years I believed that few places could rival the Hebridean charm of its sea lochs, mountains and rugged coast. Then I discovered the Cairngorms, in the heart of Highland Scotland, and realised that they are equally special.

The Cairngorms rise between Inverness to the north, Aberdeen to the east and Dundee to the south. The heart of these mountains is about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get in Scotland; as a result, summer days can be blisteringly hot. Yet, on the higher peaks, you can still find snow buntings foraging for cold-stunned insects among crisp patches of winter snow, even in July and August.

If I were visiting the area for the first time, my first port of call would have to be the Cairngorm Plateau, the massif that rises to a maximum altitude of more than 1,300m between Aviemore and Braemar. This bleak, windswept landscape can, at first glance, appear barren, but it is home to mountain specialists such as ptarmigan.

These tough little gamebirds are closely related to red grouse and are our only native birds to turn all-white in winter. In summer they take on a mottled, grey-brown appearance and can be difficult to spot, but there is one place where you can virtually guarantee good sightings – the Cairngorm ski resort at the head of Glen More, tucked under the bulk of the 1,245m Cairn Gorm itself. The ptarmigan – which are not very skittish anyway – have become so used to skiers here that they are practically tame.

GOING FOR GOLDIES

Most people visiting the mountains will also be eager to see the ptarmigan’s nemesis – the golden eagle. But since it’s impossible to pick just one place where you might spot the signature species of the Scottish uplands, all I can suggest is to look up, particularly on clear days with blue skies – an eagle is more than likely to be soaring way up high, a mere pinprick to the naked eye. If it’s perched on a post or flying near a road, it’s a buzzard.

The Cairngorms are also a good area for hen harriers, which will be busy feeding their chicks in early summer. These are an easier ‘tick’ than the goldies, though still not a certainty. A good place to look for them is along the A9 near Slochd. They nest on the ground in heather moorland, but you are more likely to see them flying about 5m above the ground.

Another key destination on my holiday itinerary would have to be the Caledonian pinewood of Abernethy Forest, one of the RSPB’s flagship reserves. As with golden eagles and ptarmigan, two of the most exciting species to look for here are predator and prey.

The capercaillie is the UK’s largest grouse and, with a dark, blue-black body, red eye combs and long tail, the male is both magnificent and unmistakable. There are some great tracks through Abernethy so, as you stroll along, don’t forget to scour the trees for roosting females – even during the day. However, the hens are far more cryptically coloured than the cocks and are all but impossible to spot when sitting on their nests on the ground from late April to early June.

Roosting is one way in which the capercaillie avoids its terrestrial predators, which include the mysterious wildcat. Like Macavity, the wildcat is the hidden paw, and you will need a lot of luck to see one. Some people worry about whether they have seen a genetically pure individual or the hybrid of a domestic pet and wild feline, but, in my opinion, you should just be happy (ecstatically so!) to glimpse this elusive creature – a hybrid is essentially the same beast and will be living as its ancestors did thousands of years ago. While here, don’t forget to watch the pine martens – you’ll need to visit a special hide to enjoy good views.

WINTER TREAT

One of my most treasured memories of Abernethy took place in winter. A light flurry of snow had begun to fall when I heard the sound of animals galloping through the forest. Confused, I stood and watched – amazed – as a herd of 20 red deer raced past: it was a beautiful, otherworldly moment.

But, of course, the ancient Caledonian pine forest is exactly where red deer should be seen. They are not animals of mountain and moorland; they have merely been driven into those habitats by deforestation.

Another place that is special to me is Creag Meagaidh, a former deer-hunting estate on the western edge of the Cairngorms, now owned by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Over the past 25 years, SNH has massively reduced deer numbers on the property, allowing the birch woodland to regenerate naturally. This, in turn, has encouraged wildflowers to flourish and provided nest sites and shelter for willow warblers and black grouse.

Near the start of my career, I spent a year in the Cairngorms and learned that you should never look too hard for whatever you want to see. One warm summer afternoon I spent many hours fruitlessly searching a glacial corrie for ptarmigan, before deciding to walk to the top of the ridge. Halfway up, the slope became steep, the rocks began to skitter out from under my feet and a wall of cliffs some 5m high barred my way. As a thick mist rolled in, I realised that I couldn’t go down, and the way up looked near impossible, too. Suppressing panic, I continued scrabbling upwards, singing manically, and reached the top, exhausted and more than a little rattled.

With all thoughts of finding ptarmigan long gone, I sat down wearily, my glazed eyes fixed on a small, grouse-shaped rock a few metres away. Fifteen minutes later, as I got up to leave, the rock twitched and waddled away – it was not only a ptarmigan, but a ptarmigan mother with 10 of the fluffiest, tiniest chicks I have ever seen.

Like I say, the Cairngorms is one of those places where it’s best just to let things happen. And they will, I promise you. They will.

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